Since I wanted to show off some tools, I did an experimental and sorta terrible (i.e. you can’t really see any of the stuff I am holding up) video version of this. The video is essentially exactly what I say below (though not word for word in many places), so take your pick which one you use.
I have been thinking a lot about touch lately, especially for mobile phone use – some of it paid and secret – and the more I think about it the more I think there are two standard beliefs that I sort of disagree with.
First, I don’t think we have touch screens yet. I think we just have “point screens.” That means these are not too far from the mouse, and are almost exactly the same as the digitizing tablet I use every day. I have a “touchscreen” laptop as well, and there’s an N800 on the desk in front of me.
Pointing, like with a mouse or digitizing pen, is just pointing. There’s no functional difference between poking at the air and sliding your finger across a smooth glass screen. Touch on the other hand gives you some sort of feedback. You can feel the presence of a button, and when you press it get a response that you’ve actually moved it.
Which brings me to the second point. Fingers are pretty good at pressing buttons, but I am not sure they are much good at anything else. But people are tool users; we don’t just point, or point more precisely with stylii and so on. We use tools to accomplish tasks. And not tools in the sense of buttons, or mobile phones. I mean we can grasp things to manipulate other things.
Your basic toolbox is a good example, but I went and grabbed by old art supply boxes, because yes I am partly talking about the fascination with the ability to draw on your iPhone. I have a degree in printmaking, so have an unusually deep set of specialized tools hanging around.
The pencil is less obvious than it seems (much less, if you are a Henry Petroski fan. It’s not just a pointer, but a mark-maker. Each one has different characteristics, and interfaces with the paper in a way that makes it possible to draw, or draw straight lines.
Similar things happen with technical pens, charcoal and paint brushes, and more so the engravers I used in a certain kind of printing plate making. The interface between the tool and the surface guides it. For pencils and gravers, this helps you make more ordered lines.
I had forgotten about some of the tools I used. Burnishers, to polish or flatten items – several of them for different surfaces and end effects. Even a feather on a stick, to spread acid on plates for a certain kind of etching (called “spit bite”).
In all cases, There is feedback, not just from the direct interface of you grasping the tool, but of the tool changing or running over the surface. Even digitizing tablets do not do this well, though they tend to have texture to get halfway there. The pen tips are replaceable like pencil leads for this exact reason.
Now I am not saying we have to stop being exciting with, say, the ability to draw on your iPhone. I just want to be very, very clear about terminology or even the assumption (all too strongly stated on fanboi forums) that we’ve reached the nirvana of interfaces. Presuming that any one solution is not just the best today, but the best that could ever be will tend to stifle creativity and development of wholly new ideas.
Things like calling pointing on glass “touch” when there is no feedback I think lead to confusion over expectations and future terminology. Now we’ll have to explain what “haptics” means, and since that will probably launch in some half-assed manner, we’ll have to come up with yet another term for “really good haptics” later on still.
That’s the future I hope for in the relatively near term, haptic feedback will let you simulate the real world environment of things to manipulate on your flat screen. After that… I have no specific idea. Lots of things are possible. And that’s a key point. We have to constantly remember to keep our minds open to what could be The Next Big Thing, and try to understand what really would be a natural UI.
For any design problem, never assume the first answer that meets a bunch of your goals is the one final solution. Look at how users actually employ their devices, and in this case consider that tool using is about grasping items, precision and specific solutions for specific tasks.
I’m excited for the future, and look forward to the next great new idea.